Gary Prokes, the longest serving current faculty member at Riverside-Brookfield High School and the man who built RBTV into an award-winning powerhouse that launched many students into careers in television and video production, is retiring.

Earlier this month, Prokes unexpectedly turned in his resignation letter. His job was posted on the school’s website June 8. That was the first time many of his colleagues learned he was retiring. 

Prokes grew up in North Riverside and graduated from RBHS in 1979. He began working at the school in 1986 when he replaced Lucas Palermo, the head of the school’s audio-visual department who left to become a professor at Columbia College. Palermo had played a key role in establishing RBTV and was something of a mentor to Prokes.  

When Prokes began working at RBHS nearly 37 years ago, there were only six students taking television classes. In the nearly four decades since, he and RBTV became a constant presence at school events, broadcasting school board meetings, first on a delayed basis and live since 2011, in addition to football and basketball games, plays, pep rallies, graduation and the RBEF telethon.

Gary Prokes (wearing headphones) gives directions to student production assistants in the RBTV control booth during the 2018 RBEF Telethon. He is retiring after 37 years at the head of the program, which he largely built from the ground up. | FILE

The station also broadcasts original shows such as “Kev-Head Tonight,” which featured former RBHS music teacher Kevin McOlgan and “Cook This!” and “Coffee with Kosey,” featuring Riverside-Brookfield Landmark columnist JoAnne Kosey. The station airs locally on Channel 16 and broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, often airing reruns.

“Gary Prokes has been a fantastic employee and really a cornerstone of RB,” said Superintendent Kevin Skinkis. “His history and knowledge about the district and high school, all the great things that have happened at RB, whether he captured them for RBTV or through telethons or the different guests he’s hosted on student shows.”

Under Prokes’ supervision RBTV students have won scores of awards and many have gone on to careers in the business. Students past and present say that Prokes, who had no formal training in teaching, was a superb but exacting teacher. 

“He can be very serious at times and he definitely knows how to teach kids very well; you can tell he really cares,” said Delilah Luna Del Castillo, who graduated from RBHS last month and worked the June school board meeting for RBTV as an audio engineer and will study film and television at Columbia College, where Prokes has been an adjunct professor, teaching television production.

Prokes graduated from Drake University in 1983 with a double major in radio/TV and English. He worked in production for KCCI-TV in Des Moines, a CBS affiliate, as a producer for Continental Cablevision in Chicago and as the director of public access TV for the village of Western Springs before coming to RBHS in 1986 to replace Palermo.

But RBTV was his life’s work. He brought professional experience and standards to a fledging high school television station. For many RBTV students being part of it was a life-changing experience. Many got their introduction to RBTV in a summer workshop for incoming freshmen that Prokes taught. Once they got a taste of it, they were hooked.

“That summer fully changed my life direction; it happened that fast,” said Bryan Smaller, 30, and a 2010 RBHS graduate, noting that he only signed up for the summer workshop because he wanted to get familiar with the RBHS building before he started his freshman year.

Smaller is now a senior colorist — someone who adds more vivid color to video in the post-production process — at Company3, the largest post-production company in the world. 

Based in Santa Monica, California, Smaller has won three Emmy Awards for his work, one for the pregame video for Super Bowl LI and two for his work on NFL 360, a show on the NFL Network.

Smaller, like many RBTV alums, credit their careers and professional success to the great start they got at in the program.

“Going into RBTV meant that I was immediately thrown into what felt very much like adult problem-solving,” Smaller recalled. “I was thrown immediately into challenges that I had never experienced as a 13-year-old, much less had I been a leader of anyone.”

Prokes encouraged students to contact A-list celebrities to invite them to appear on RBTV shows.

“He had me emailing Michael Jordan; he had me emailing Oprah, I’m not kidding,” Smaller said. “Just by us putting us in that situation, he taught me that the world is malleable.”

Dan Svoboda, a 2008 RBHS graduate who now works in video production for Itasca-based Diversified Labeling Solutions after a stint at the University of Chicago and as a project manager for Apple, says RBTV was the focal point of his high school experience. 

“Some of my fondest memories of high school are with that man,” Svoboda said. “He had a very unique ability to tell when I was phoning it in and would not accept it.”

Prokes, who declined to be interviewed for this story but answered a few questions by email, typically stayed in the background. He let his students shine. 

In the second-floor RBTV studio, Prokes was in complete control. He put in long hours working, supervising and helping students.

Patty Sarkady, an applied arts teacher at RBHS, worked closely with Prokes during her first 10 years at the school when she taught a class in broadcast news. The two had met at Columbia College, and Prokes was largely responsible for bringing Sarkady to RBHS.

“He is a teacher who expects high quality, yet he works with them to teach them how to do the best production possible,” Sarkady said. 

“He sits one on one with those students and works with them to challenge each one to their level so they can produce high quality product.”

While at RBTV, Prokes managed the transition from analog and three-quarter inch tape to digital production. He led the construction of a second studio in what had been the balcony of the Little Theater.

It is not clear who will replace Prokes.

“The position has been posted on all of our channels that we do when we have an opening, so we will start searching for candidates ASAP,” Skinkis said.

Whoever takes over the position, it will probably be impossible to truly replace Prokes. 

“He loves to work; he loves the challenge of creating,” Sarkady said. “Very tough shoes to fill.”